Silver lining: Test scores mattering less in college admissions

College admission is always stressful for students and their families as they try to make sense out of the application labyrinth. And now the pressure has been turned up with recent news that the Trump administration has reversed President Barack Obama’s guidance to colleges on affirmative action.

Regardless of how federal agencies and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually rule on affirmative action, American students and their parents are going to be stuck with some harsh news: Getting admitted to a prestigious college, whether private or public, is difficult.

Most frustrating is that it also is uncertain and unclear as to who will get in — and why.

This is not going to change no matter how public policies are resolved. If Stanford gets 20 applicants per admission slot and can only admit one, then 19 are going to be disappointed.

High-school students should not despair. There’s a silver lining in that cloud of competitive college admissions and fear of rejection letters. Most of America’s 2,500 four-year colleges recruit and welcome students who have good high school transcripts. No college makes all its admissions decisions based on grades and test scores alone. Many colleges have made the SAT or ACT test scores optional, often using them more for advising than for admissions decisions.

The story in the July 4 Herald-Leader about the Trump administration and affirmative action unfortunately crowded out another landmark event in college admission. Three weeks ago, the University of Chicago announced that it will no longer require the SAT or ACT as part of a student’s application. This changes admissions.

The University of Chicago has long had the luxury of choice among applicants with high SAT scores. Now, the message is that even admissions officers at a selective college are not sure what the SAT measures. As often happens in college admissions, where the University of Chicago leads, others will follow.

So, an applicant has new choices: “How do I best present myself to the dean of admissions?” It calls for creativity and persuasion. When standardized test scores are optional, a student has to ask “What does my SAT score tell about me? Do I wish to include or exclude this in my self-portrait?”

Although creating an application profile can be interesting and even fun (well, sort of) the serious business in going to college is not just about admissions. It’s about affordability. Most colleges understand that lack of adequate financial aid awards is the paramount obstacle to American families. And, colleges provide a partial accommodation with discounts, ranging from merit aid and in-state price reductions to grants based on financial need.

But for most students, these still leave some tuition and living expenses uncovered.

Across the entire national landscape of colleges, the playing field now is tipped in favor of student applicants. This is counter-intuitive in our era of admissions anxiety. In April, high school seniors may be worried about letters from colleges that will bring bad news of rejection. But this is not as great as the anxiety that admissions staff face about whether good students are going to choose to enroll at their college.

Kentucky and states in the Midwest and Northeast have a declining high school population and hundreds of excellent colleges that are under-enrolled. Thus, demographics dictate that many applicants will have more choices among several offers of admissions. And, students then will have leverage on financial aid packages. Colleges are competitive and often work to attract students by offering more grants and fewer loans.

This window of opportunity for financial-aid negotiation usually helps students. It allows them to focus on finding the right college fit instead of just being concerned about how to pay bills in making a college choice.

If you are a high school senior whose transcripts show achievement in good courses, combined with activities and interests, colleges will be interested in you. And, if you have outstanding talent in a special skill, your stock will rise.

To be vibrant, a campus needs students who are excellent contributors — ranging from cello to soccer, from physics to football. But you must tell your story about your talents. Going to college is an American academic version of “Let’s make a deal!” To get into college, you have to get in the game.

John R. Thelin of Lexington is a University of Kentucky professor whose teaching and research focus on higher education and public policy. He received the National Education Association’s award for the outstanding article on education in a democracy. Reach him at jthelin@uky.edu.